out of Five
Running time: 88mins
A fearless piece of frontline filmmaking from Danfung Dennis paints a disturbing picture of the American war machine both on and off the battlefield.
What’s it all about?
Photojournalist-turned filmmaker Danfung Dennis’s debut documentary Hell and Back Again picked up a Jury Award at this year’s Sundance for its candid portrayal of the war in Afghanistan and its effect on one soldier – Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris. During the summer of 2009, Dennis tracked Harris and his platoon in Helmand Province. But after Harris sustained a severe injury to his hip, Dennis decided to document his recovery back home in North Carolina as well. The resulting documentary tries to infiltrate Harris’ mind, interspersing battlefield footage with that of him trying to readjust to normal life.
There’s only a moment’s pause after the opening credits before the camera goes straight into an offensive. Soon we’re whisked away on a helicopter, before peering round corners with snipers and running over dusty terrain with gunshots echoing round. As directors like Kathryn Bigelow utilise hyper-realistic shaky-cams to portray the experience of war, documentarians seem to answer by venturing ever closer to the frontline.
Keeping his camera trained on the soldiers and Afghan villagers interacting after the gunshots have stopped, Dennis bravely shows the chaos on and off the battlefield. Taking a different tack to other filmmakers who choose to break up their footage with soldiers’ interviews, he narrows his focus to follow the charismatic Sergeant, who after being injured is unlikely ever to see active service again.
Dennis is at his best when simply observing. His camera highlights the lonely, humdrum North Carolinian landscape of malls and drive-ins, so we understand why Harris might pine for action. He also lingers on both the physical and mental difficulties he faces during recovery and draws out incredibly honest reflections from him – “at 18 I didn’t have any fear. All I wanted to do was kill the enemy.”
There are plenty of disturbing scenes in Dennis’ film both on the battlefield as soldiers sustain horrific injuries but also back in Harris’s home as he plays with guns and teaches his wife Ashley how to shoot. Yet in an effort to penetrate Harris's traumatised mental state, Dennis goes over the top with manipulative and unnecessary editing, overlaying the sounds of the battlefield with shots of Harris upset and depressed.
An incredibly brave piece of filmmaking, worth watching for the brutal insight it offers onto life on the frontline, Hell and Back Again only begins to waver when Dennis's camera turns away from the battlefield and starts to overemphasise Harris's disturbed mental condition.
Hell and Back Again (R16)